It's hard to say goodbye to a friend and Johnnie Privitera was a true and generous friend to all those who frequented the Paola Hibs' Football Nursery and the Hibs Ground at Corradino.
Johnnie was one of the greatest players to wear the famous black and white shirt of Hibernians. He was undoubtedly one of the best full-backs in the history of the modern game.
An attacking player at a time when full-backs were considered as pure defenders, Privitera would have fitted perfectly in the modern role of wing-back.
One minute he would be patrolling the defensive area and the next, he would be working his way up the flank to have a crack at goal or to send telling crosses to his forwards.
It was a delight to watch those long legs pounding their way up the wing. Johnnie had his own distinct style which soon earned him the nickname il-Ġemel among the Hibs fans.
A solid, reliable defender, Privitera was born in Sliema in 1940. He began his career at the age of 17 with Sliema Wanderers in the Minor League. The Blues, however, failed to appreciate his true potential, something they would come to deeply regret, and after playing 10 matches in the blue shirt of the Wanderers, he changed it for the white of Hibs.
In 1959-60, his first season down south, Privitera won the Under-21 League and finished runner-up in the First Division. In 1960-61, Hibernians won the League Championship and a year later, the FA Trophy and Cassar Cup.
In 1966-67, he won another championship medal repeating the feat in 1968-69.
Besides gaining representative honours for Malta, he also played in all of Hibs' European matches, including the memorable encounters against Servette, Atletico Madrid, Manchester United and Real Madrid. He also helped Hibs to prestigious results in friendly matches against Chelsea, Arsenal, Portsmouth and Milan.
Between 1959 and 1974, Privitera made 178 league appearances for Hibs scoring an amazing 28 goals from the full-back position. In 15 seasons with the club he collected a staggering 13 major honours, making him one of the most successful players in the history of the club.
In the years I have known Johnnie, I had many occasions to discuss with him his football career. Once, I asked him to name the biggest disappointment and the brightest moment of his career. Johnnie was not one to talk ill of anybody.
In fact, I have never heard him utter a bad word about anybody. However, when I pressed him, he mentioned the 1973-74 incident when Hibs decided to sack their veteran players to make way for their brilliant minors' team.
Hibs had some fine youngsters with a bright future in front of them but like wine, a team needs time to mature. For a while, the Paolites had to pay the cost of their rash decision.
Johnnie was hurt by Hibs' behaviour. He rightly felt that he still had more to offer and that he could have helped the youngsters with his invaluable experience. He never forgot that rebuff but his love for the club never wavered and, right up to a few weeks before his death, he was still serving Hibernians where it matters most, tutoring the Paola youngsters at the Nursery.
As for the brightest moment of his career, I expected Johnnie to mention season 1968-69 when he won the Footballer of the Year award. However, he said quite emphatically that the proudest moment of his own career was on April 27, 1969 when he captained Malta against Austria at the old Empire Stadium.
However, he was quick to point out with a tear in his eye that the happiest and proudest moment of his life was when his grandson Jonathan Caruana won the FA Trophy with Hibernians in 2006-07.
Johnnie knew then that his life was drawing to a close but at least he had the satisfaction that his memory will live on in his grandson.
He need not have worried because his friends and the people of Paola will never forget him.
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